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LOW-RISE-BUILDING

PRESSURE:
Basics and Case Studies
Understanding how buildings get to be pressurized
so HVAC operating problems can be identified,
diagnosed, and corrected
he first-cost focus of new construction of- had serious problems with building pressurization.
ten results in buildingsHVAC systems
in particularthat dont work. Seeming THE BASICS
Building pressurizationboth positive and negto catch consultants and contractors by surprise are
ativecomes about by two
problems associated with building pressurization. These can By JAMES P. WALTZ, PE, CEM, ACFE means. The first is naturalthe
Energy Resource Associates Inc.
effects of ambient air and wind.
take the form of automatic
Livermore, Calif.
The secondand usually predoors in violation of codes prodominantis the HVAC systecting people with disabilities,
as well as mold and mildew, carpet staining, insuffi- tem. Particularly with respect to the latter, building
cient HVAC capacity, and poor indoor-air quality. pressurization is determined by a variety of factors,
This article will discuss how buildings become including the airtightness of the building, the
pressurized and examine two real-life buildings that airtightness of the ductwork, the configuration of
the HVAC system, and how the HVAC
system is adjusted.
Exhaust
Looking at Figure 1, we can see that if
Outside air
the return-air ductwork is excessively
H
C
Return/exhaust
fan?
restrictive, the outside-air damper is not
C
C
completely airtight, and the construction
of the building is relatively loose, the building will be positively pressurized because it
is easier for the HVAC system to draw in air
through the outside-air damper and push it
out through the envelope of the building
Occupied space
than push it back through the restrictive
return-air ductwork. Conversely, if the supFIGURE 1. A simplified HVAC schematic.
ply-air ductwork is leaky, and the return-air

Acknowledged as a pioneer in the field of energy management, James P. Waltz, PE, CEM, ACFE, is president
of Energy Resource Associates Inc., a firm specializing in the renewal of mechanical, electrical, and control
infrastructure systems of existing buildings. He is a founding member of the Association of Energy Engineers,
through which he has taught nationwide seminars and authored books on building simulation and performance
contracting, and a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers;
the American College of Forensic Examiners; the Association of Energy Services Professionals; and the Demand
Side Management Society. Since 2000, he has served on HPAC Engineerings Editorial Advisory Board.
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February 2003 HPAC Engineering

B U I L D I N G

ductwork is oversized, it will be easier


to push out air through the leaks in the
supply ductwork and draw in air through
the openings in the building, causing the
building to be negatively pressurized.
In other words, the pressure condition
of an occupied space may be impossible
to predict based on the building and
HVAC design because it may depend
largely on qualitative construction issues,
such as the airtightness of the building
and/or HVAC ducts, which often are not
predictable.
To understand why building pressurization is so important, consider codes

P R E S S U R I Z A T I O N

doors cannot be adjusted perfectly and


that a bit of extra door-closure pressure is
needed for a door to close reasonably
quickly and securely and latch upon
closing, 0.05 in. of water gauge should be
used as the practical limit for building
pressurization to meet the codes.
If a building were operated on 100-

percent return air, with its supply-air


and return-air ductwork leaktight and
all of its dampers leaktight when closed,
the building pressurization would be
neutral (i.e., equal to the atmosphere).
The only way to pressurize a building
positively or negatively is to deliver more
air to an occupied space than is removed

Even simple low-rise


buildings need real
engineering.
regarding automatically closing doors.
These codes are very specific about the
maximum amount of force a person with
a disability should have to exert to overcome the force exerted by an automatic
door closer. If a building has an outsideair economizer and is pressurized, the air
pressure will overcome most of the force
of an automatic door closer so that one
only has to touch the door to cause it to
open. If an outside-air economizer is not
in operation, one must overcome the
entire force exerted by the door closer.
The maximum force allowed is 8.5 lb. It
is assumed that this force is applied in
the middle of the door. We can sum the
moments around the hinge point of the
door and calculate the balanced forces.
Eight pounds times half the width of
the door is 1.5 ft, or 12 ft-lb of torque.
Because the center of force of pressure on
the door is the center of the door as well,
and we assume the door to be approximately 3 ft by 6 ft 8 in., or 20 sq ft, then
8.5 lb divided by 20 sq ft (2,880 sq in.) is
approximately 0.003 psi. Because 1 psi
is equal to approximately 2.3 ft, or 28 in.
of water, then 0.003 psi times 28 in. is
approximately 0.1 in. of water static
pressure. To account for the fact that all
Circle 169
HPAC Engineering February 2003

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B U I L D I N G

or vice versa. In this case, because the supply-air and return-air ductwork is leaktight, and the outside- and exhaust-air
dampers are closed and also leaktight, the
amount of air supplied to the occupied
space and the amount returned are the
same, meaning the space could be neither
positively nor negatively pressurized. In

P R E S S U R I Z A T I O N

examining the pressures in the ductwork,


we would realize that the pressure in the
supply duct was positive, allowing air to
move from the duct into the neutral
space, while the pressure in the return
duct was negative, allowing air to move
there from the space. If the return-air
ductwork were grossly oversized, and

there were no static-pressure losses in it,


we could assume that the pressure on the
suction side of the fan was the same as the
atmospheric pressure and that there was
only positive pressure in the supply ducts.
And if we were to open the outside-air
damper to introduce ventilation into the
building, no air would flow into the outside-air damper because the pressure
would be the same on both sides of the
damper. To introduce ventilation into the
building, we would need to close the
return-air damper slightly, which would

HVAC engineers need to


be masters of their own
destinies with regard to
building pressurization.
They will control or be
controlled.
cause restriction and a negative pressure
between the return-air damper and the
supply fan, which, in turn, would cause
ventilation air to enter the outside-air
damper and the building to be slightly
positively pressurized, with the same
amount of air leaking out of the building
as coming in through the outside-air
damper. If the ventilation air were to
cause the building to be pressurized more
than we desired, we could relieve the
excess pressure by opening the exhaust-air
damper.
Of course, we do not have such perfect
buildings, nor do we have perfect HVAC
systems. For example, it is rather common for return-air duct systems in multistory buildings to have a static-friction
loss in the neighborhood of 14 to 12 in. of
water. What this means is that a building
with an outside-air economizer would
have to be pressurized to 14 to 12 in. of
static (at 12 in., the force required to move
the door would be close to 50 lb!). Experience has shown this will not work,
which means building pressurization
Circle 150
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February 2003 HPAC Engineering

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needs to be actively controlled. There are


two ways to do this:
1) Design a building that has virtually
no static-friction losses in the returnair ductwork and/or is extremely leaky.
What comes to mind are single-story
retail spaces such as lumber stores or
home-supply stores, where there is no
suspended ceiling, the rooftop unit sucks
air directly out of the space, and there
usually is a wide-open warehouse loading-dock door. What also comes to mind
are portable buildings with sidewallmounted packaged air-conditioning
units that essentially suck return air
directly out of the space. These sorts of
buildings generally do not have problems
with excessive building pressurization.
2) Use a return/exhaust fan as part
of the HVAC system. Such a fan will
overcome the static-friction losses in the
return-air ductwork. By adjusting its
speed and properly setting the dampers,
we can achieve a neutral space, a negatively pressurized space, or a positively
pressurized space.
Any building more than one story
tall probably is going to require a return/
exhaust or economizer relief fan to work
properly and not be excessively pressurized during economizer operation. Because outside-air economizers are
required by Title 24 of the California
Codes and ANSI/ASHRAE/IESNA
Standard 90.1, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings,
for systems of all sizes, any building above
a single story should have a return/
exhaust fan as part of its HVAC system.
Note that, unless you have designed a
perfect building and a return-air system
with virtually no return-duct losses, even
a relief fan will not do the job because
the building almost certainly will be
excessively positively pressurized under
return-air operation. Of course, once
you have the system installed, you still
will have to balance the dampers and
return/exhaust-fan speed, which is not a
trivial matter.
To give an idea of the sorts of problems
that can be encountered, the following
case studies are provided.
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P R E S S U R I Z A T I O N

CASE STUDY:
MEDICAL ADMINISTRATION BUILDING

When a large regional acute-care


medical center in Northern California
merged with another medical center,
the new health-services association
elected to co-locate all management
and financial functions in a shared office
facility. A buildinga former data
centerwas purchased, and an architect
was hired. Unfortunately, some preexisting deficiencies in the buildings
HVAC systems were not addressed, as the
architectural firm had its engineering
consultants address their work as a tenant
improvement project, rather than a basebuild rehabilitation (even though a new
exterior skin was being put on the building, and other basic building elements
were being addressed). This resulted in
some very untoward HVAC-system
problems once the building was occupied. Our firm was engaged to determine
the physical conformation of the HVAC

systems and observe and in-situ test them


under different modes of operation. In
addition, remediation schemes were
developed and expert testimony provided
during settlement meetings with the
architect. The building as it existed
at the time of our investigation is shown
in Figure 2.
Through our investigation, we learned
that:
During full-recirculating-air (full
return air) mode, air moved through
the building along many unusual
and unintended pathways (namely, the
elevator shafts and the stairwells instead
of the return-air shafts) on its way back to
the rooftop air-conditioning units. The
lower two floors were positively pressurized (air was leaking out), while the third
floor was negatively pressurized (air was
leaking in).
During economizer (full outside
air) mode, the entire building was positively pressurized so extensively that exteExhaust

Outside air
Rooftop unit

Infiltration

Returnair shaft

Exfiltration

Ceiling

Exfiltration

Occupied space
Elevator shaft

FIGURE 2. The pre-retrofit medical administration building.

February 2003 HPAC Engineering

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rior doors remained open once they were


unlatched.
The building also suffered from a
shortage of cooling on hot days.
Insufficient return-air pathway. When
the building was constructed originally, a
contiguous, uninterrupted return-air
pathway from the occupied spaces back
to the rooftop units was not provided. A
return-air pathway was provided from
the ceiling plenum on the first floor all
the way to the ceiling plenum on the third
floor, but then was interrupted. Apparently, the original designer hoped that the
air from the first and second floors would
magically combine with the air from the
third floor and flow into the return-air
inlet below each rooftop unit in the ceiling-plenum space on the third floor. The
intended return-air pathway for the first
and second floors was insufficient and
resulted in the return air seeking its own
way through the building by means of the
paths of least resistance, which primarily

P R E S S U R I Z A T I O N

consisted of three stairwells and the


elevator shaft. This literally would cause
a bad-hair day for those entering the
elevators on the third floor. Furthermore,
because the intended return-air pathway
from the first and second floors was so
inadequate, the air-conditioning systems
were starving for air and caused the
third floor to be underpressurized (negative to the outdoors) and draw in air from
the outside at the exterior doors (including those on executive office patios
quite a problem in rainy winter weather).
Conversely, because the air delivered to
the first and second floors could not easily
get back to the rooftop units, these two
floors were overpressurized (positive to
the outdoors) and leaked air out of the
building at the exterior doors.
Inadequate building-pressure relief for
economizer operation. During econo-

mizer operation, when it was cool outside


and cooling was needed, the building
would be flooded with 100-percent outExhaust

Outside air
Rooftop unit

Neutral

Returnair shaft
Neutral

Ceiling
Neutral
Occupied space
Elevator shaft

FIGURE 3. The post-retrofit medical administration building.

side air. A natural or barometric


means of building relief was provided in
the form of flapper relief dampers at
the rooftop units. Unfortunately, this
natural means of building relief relied
on pressurizing the building and using
that pressure to force air up the return-air
pathway and out through the relief
dampers. Again, the amount of pressure
required to cause the air to take this pathway resulted in excessive pressurization,
which caused doors to stand open when
the building was in the economizer mode
of operation. This was particularly troublesome during late-evening hours, when
the building was lightly occupied and the
security system went into alarm anytime
someone left or entered the building. As
a stopgap measure, the economizers were
disabled and the building placed on 24hr operation, with the refrigeration compressors providing continuous cooling.
Insufficient cooling capacity. The
building occupancyincluding human-occupant density, the intensive
use of computer peripherals, and open
office landscape furniture (with built-in
lighting)resulted in the building
requiring more cooling than the rooftop
units could provide.
This was evidenced by numerous
hot complaints from occupants and
confirmed by the operating engineers,
who observed the rooftop units being
unable to maintain an acceptable coolair-supply temperature (only 65-F air
could be produced on a hot day with
all of the cooling equipment operating
properly). This was further confirmed
by the air-balance testing done at the
completion of the remodeling work,
which indicated that the intended or
design airflow into the various spaces
exceeded the airflow available from the
rooftop units (both as tested and as indicated by the manufacturers cataloged
performance data).
The solution. All of these problems
could be solved by opening the roof at
the top of the existing shafts, ducting
from there to the rooftop units, adding
return/exhaust fans to each of the rooftop
units, adding supplemental cooling by

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P R E S S U R I Z A T I O N

Rooftop unit

Outside air
Exhaust

Exfiltration

Exfiltration
Occupied space

FIGURE 4. The pre-retrofit cineplex.

means of new two-row cooling coils in


the return-air chamber of each rooftop
unit, and supplying those coils with
excess capacity from the existing computer-room chillers (Figure 3). Most importantly, the project could be implemented
without serious disruption to the building because the bulk of the work essentially would involve the reuse of existing
systems and equipment and be conducted on the roof. As a bonus, the project would pay for itself in less than four
years.
CASE STUDY: CINEPLEX

An eight-screen cineplex in Northern


California (Figure 4) featured HVAC
systems constructed in a design-build
fashion. The result was a building that
frequently experienced pressurization so
severe that extra employees had to be
hired to close exit doors following each
showotherwise, the doors would stand
open, allowing unpaid entrance. In addition, employees in the ticket office had
to be extremely careful in handling paper
money; if they were not, the money literally would fly out of their hands through
the opening in the ticket-booth glass!
Another problem was that the HVAC
systems were noisy, both in the lobby
(quite severe) and in the theaters (not
as severe, but a threat to the cineplexs
Lucasfilms THX certification).
Our firms first task was to perform a
thorough survey of the buildings HVAC
systems. This included contacting the
building-automation/direct-digital-control-system vendor (and HVAC service
company) to learn how the buildings
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HVAC systems were controlled and how


to override the controls. The next step
was to conduct a whole-building test,
placing all 10 HVAC systems in full
return-air mode and then full outside-air
mode. Simultaneously, building air-pressure measurements were taken and automatic door closers tested to determine
their status in each mode. Full-spectrum
sound-power tests also were conducted to
determine whether the theaters met the
THX sound-power criteria (NC-30) in
each mode of operation.
What was learned from the testing was
that the HVAC system did not utilize
return/exhaust fans and required return/
exhaust air to pass from each theater
through a restrictive return-air duct
system and (in full outside-air mode) a
metal barometric damper that was part of
the rooftop ductwork back to the packaged rooftop HVAC units. Analysis of
the return-air/exhaust system revealed
that it could not be easily modified to
achieve a 0.05-in. static-pressure drop
(the maximum allowed if code-compli-

ant automatic door closers are to work


effectively). As a result, a remediation
scheme that included the enlargement
of the return-air pathways (a noise source
in full return-air mode, but not under full
economizer mode because only a portion
of the air went through the return/exhaust duct) was developed. The pathways
were enlarged by essentially duplicating
the existing return-air ductwork, adding
powered (belt-driven) exhaust fans for
full outside-air operation, and carefully
balancing the supply- and exhaust-air
fans under full outside-air operation.
Once the scheme was implemented,
the modified theaters were brought into
neutral air-pressure balance (Figure 5).
Interestingly enough, the severe noise
problem in the lobby was the result of
an attempt to solve the building-pressurization problemwhich was most
observable at the lobby doors, but the
same throughout the buildingby
dampering down the supply airflow at
the lobby diffusers. Needless to say, this
only created another problem: noise.
CONCLUSION

The bottom line to this whole discussion is that HVAC engineers need to be
masters of their own destinies with regard
to building pressurization. In other
words, they will control or be controlled.
Even simple low-rise buildings need real
engineering.
For HPAC Engineering feature articles
dating back to January 1992, visit
www.hpac.com.
Rooftop unit

Outside air
Exhaust

C
C

Neutral
Occupied space

FIGURE 5. The post-retrofit cineplex.

February 2003 HPAC Engineering